Private Health Care, ‘Queue Jumping,’ and Consumer Choice

Twenty years ago, Canada’s first private MRI clinic opened in Calgary (unsure, albeit, of its viability). Fast forward to 2013 and there are dozens of these clinics in Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Quebec. Whereas Medicare provides patients in need with access to diagnostic imaging, the market for private imaging supplies patients with non-urgent conditions.

Medicare’s average wait time for non-urgent MRIs ranges from months to years. As a result, several frustrated patients opt to pay for an MRI instead, although this option is presently in danger.

The Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons recently suggested a provincial ban on private MRI clinics on the grounds of equity and queue jumping. At this time, however, there is no tabled legislation.

There is a problem in applying the idea of ‘queue jumping’ to this scenario. People opting for private MRIs are not jumping the line. On the contrary, they are leaving it altogether. When an individual leaves the public queue, for instance, it makes room for others who would otherwise have to wait longer. Furthermore, private MRI clinics exist solely because of private payments. In this way, there are no losers.

Furthermore, the critique on equity grounds is weak. Although it is arguably true that inequality of access increases with private clinics, everyone, including those who remain in the public system, receives better access.

Despite the intentions of those who oppose private clinics, I wonder whether they prefer worse access for everyone–so long as it is equally worse access.

The broader issue is comparing perceived problems with private clinics to the status quo. Particularly, when a government controls the distribution of infrastructure, the temptation of politicizing reform, regardless of its necessity, becomes widespread.

In 2010, for instance, New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham announced a new MRI machine to Miramichi–a provincial swing riding–during his election campaign. This raised questions about whether Graham’s concession to Miramachi reflected his desire to win votes or an evidence-based assessment. When private firms invest, however, there is no such confounding variable. Private MRI clinics, therefore, theoretically align with health resource needs, even if their services are publicly insured.

It will be interesting to see how this debate moves forward.

Possible outcomes, for instance, range from banning private MRI clinics (thus, increasing provincial fiscal responsibility and running contrary to public opinion) to staying the status quo. Furthermore, provincial governments could even extend insurance coverage to include private MRI clinics, leading to a private-public venture.

Nevertheless, access to additional health services, such as private MRI clinics, is essential. If consumers are free to spend their money on cars, vacations, and phones, allowing them to spend their money in pursuit of better healthcare is commonsense.

Mike Craig is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

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